Truly understanding the idea of mainstreaming special needs students is often very difficult for even the experienced teacher, let alone the lay person. Mainstreaming is appropriate in some situations and in others it isn’t at all. The idea is to do what is best for the student. All special needs students have some sort of educational plan, usually an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan). So the IEP team has discussed the appropriate place that allows the student an education in the “least restrictive environment” in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (which is mandated by the federal government). So the decision to place a student in the mainstream classroom is one that is made by the team, which includes the regular classroom teacher, the special education teacher, a district representative, the parents and whatever other professionals may be involved in planning for that student.
Many different factors enter into the determination for mainstreaming a particular student. Determining how the IEP goals and objectives for the student will be met in the regular classroom is a major consideration. What exactly are the difficulties the student has in learning? A medical disability will take different classroom accommodations that an actual learning disability will. Equipment modifications or use of amplification devices for the hearing impaired child may be carried out fairly easily within the regular classroom. Modifications of the regular curriculum may be more difficult for a student who is mentally challenged or learning disabled. Yet, even in those cases it isn’t impossible for some students to receive their instruction in the general education classroom. A student who is learning disabled might be able to receive instruction in the classroom in some subjects. For example, a student who is good at reading decoding skills but needs extra help in reading comprehension may actually benefit from remaining in the regular classroom for help in that area. Reading skills in the special education classroom may concentrate more on other skills and they may receive more appropriate help in the regular classroom, using the content that they would otherwise miss. The same is true for other subject areas.
One of the negative effects of removing the disabled student from the regular classroom is the dependence in the student that develops. Many students who receive special education get the idea that they can’t participate in the regular educational curriculum. While it is true that they may need some modifications to the curriculum, to deprive them of it entirely is simply a disservice to them. Often students give up and complete only the schoolwork that is given to them in the special education classroom. They develop a sort of “learned helplessness” and then don’t get much out of the regular classroom. Under the best circumstances the regular education teacher and the special education teacher work together to ensure the optimal learning situation for the student.
Many of the teachers in the regular classroom have so much to do that it is hard to find the time to adequately adjust the curriculum to fit the needs of the student. Because of this, often the teacher would prefer that the student is placed within a resource classroom. It is easy to understand the inclination especially when the individual teacher may not feel competent to address the needs of the mainstreamed student. Additional training for the regular education teacher that enables the teacher to modify the curriculum effectively is vital to provide an appropriate educational setting for the special needs child.
It is important to look at some of the reasons why least restrictive environment is an issue. Any time a student is pulled out of their regular classroom, they miss a certain amount of instruction. The instruction missed may have the effect of them getting further behind their classmates. So it is really important to make sure that the student is getting whatever they can get from the regular classroom instruction. In addition, the opportunity to interact with non disabled peers is important for the acquisition of appropriate social skills. While some of the instruction can be covered in a pull-out special education classroom, the social skills aspect cannot. Also, the special education classroom may not provide access to the grade level curriculum since the focus is often on the remediation of prerequisite skills.
The key to mainstreaming effectively is the realistic evaluation of what the child needs, as well as, what the various programs can provide. It isn’t an easy issue but one that takes deliberation that involves each member of the IEP team. With thoughtful consideration, the best placement for the individual child can be made.